Work in Progress- Noah Stuber

The Folk-Music Business


The very idea of folk music becoming a business is enough to make any serious folk musician have serious second thoughts. It is a contradictory notion, but folk music does indeed have a business side. Artists like Pete Seeger and Leadbelly were doing paid gigs as early as the 1930’s and 1940’s, but historically speaking, traditional folk musicians were never paid that much to perform. However, it is clear that there is money to be made through folk music, although many scholars have argued that folk music should keep its distance from commercial success and financial rewards. The business itself has expanded in a number of ways, although the popularity of folk music is not great today. There are various organizations devoted to the spread of folk music such as the Hudson Valley Folk Guild, which I have participated in and observed on many different levels. These types of organizations have meetings, publish newsletters, and sponsor open mic events where people sing with one another. In my conversation with Kevin Becker, the founder of the Hudson Folk Guild, we spoke about his organization and how it brings people together in a noncommercial way. When asked about the purpose of folk music, Kevin replied, “it’s built on the notion that everyone can participate, it’s accessible, and because its accessible its relevant to a wider variety of people. The universality of it all means that its communal, we can all take part in it.” Kevin is one of many people around the world who have developed an organization to give folk performers a space to develop their craft and to build an audience.

According to Dick Weissman, author of “Which Side Are You On?,” there are a handful of small record companies that issue the bulk of folk-based recordings. Rounder is the largest of these companies, which has had success in selling Alison Krauss CD’s. They have also released a major reissue of Alan Lomax’s field recordings, which amounts to over 150 albums. There are other labels as well but they are mostly for very specific genres of folk-based music like bluegrass, blues and country. According to Weissman, “singer-songwriters are the artists most apt to end up with major label contracts, because their records usually have the biggest commercial potential.” (p. 246) However, even they do not receive huge financial royalties, because they have to split it with their publisher usually on a 50-50 basis.

One reason that folk performers struggle to gain financial success is that the coffeehouses and clubs that offer performers a place to play typically do not draw large audiences or pay serious money. This is why there has been an emergence of folk festivals. They are good gigs not because they pay particularly well but because they draw huge audiences. Most of them are outdoors, such as the Newport Folk Festival, which cultivates a broad range of folk music and continues to stretch the boundaries to this day. There are others such as the Seattle Folk Life Festival, but they do not pay performers at all. There is huge sense of community in folk music, so perhaps people still find it difficult to factor in money. The fact is that making a living as a musician is a serious business, and it seems that artists and venues need to work together for mutual benefits.

  3 comments for “Work in Progress- Noah Stuber

  1. Matthew Dowden
    April 27, 2015 at 10:18 am

    Something interesting in your writing is this relationship between commercial success/money and folk music. Although the two have been intertwined for years it still seems to be authoritative in authenticity. The scholarly input into what folk music can and should be also seems paradoxical in a practice that doesn’t seem defined by a set of rules given the complications you described making folk music one’s career. I’m also intrigued by the quote you provided and if it is shared by musicians and how the popular, commercial, and communal all interacts with each other.

  2. Thomas Moore
    April 27, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    I know we spoke of this, but in reading your work in progress i was reminded of when we spoke of how folk music is perhaps being redefined as musical equipment gets ever cheaper and more familiar to people. Like the acoustic guitar and other obvious instruments were the cheapest, most accessible instruments of the 30s through the 90s, music software and free applications have replaced the guitar in accessibility and cheapness in the past two decades. How do musical electronics, then, play roles in the world of folk music? With the computerized music of today, is acoustic folk music still necessarily the most accessible music? Would the accessibility of dance music make it a form of folk music?

    • Jacob Merrell
      April 27, 2015 at 2:04 pm

      This is a fascinating point, Tom. When I was in high school, I thought of Punk as the most contemporary form of folk music because it was originally made by people who had no chance of commercial success in communities that felt alienated from the commercial mainstream. As I’d venture to say the market previously had with folk music in the 60’s, the market followed the folk form and made it popular. Noah, I can’t say much about the implications of this process today, but if you want to see some documentaries that portray this kind of bar-to-stadium narrative regarding entire musical aesthetics, you should try Kill Your Idols, which tracks the history of No Wave music in New York, and Hype!, which follows Grunge in Seattle. Both have a lot to say regarding local music communities, commercialization and ensuing bitterness, and they feature some amazing music.

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